America’s Quartet

by Sedgwick Clark

The Juilliard String Quartet has always seemed to me the quintessential American quartet––lean, intense, adventurous in repertoire, living on the edge performance-wise. So it was nice to see that it had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in February, along with fellow honorees Julie Andrews and Dolly Parton, among others. The Juilliard is the first classical ensemble to receive the award––in a “special ceremony” held during GRAMMY week, which means that TV mention of the award was relegated to a scrolled list before commercials, the GRAMMY show’s dustbin for old timers and classical artists. No matter: The JSQ deserves recognition no less than Julie and Dolly.

The award came on the heels of ArkivMusic’s welcome reissue last fall of perhaps the Quartet’s greatest recorded achievement: the 1963 cycle of Bartók’s six string quartets. The Juilliard also recorded the cycle in 1950 (which was deservedly inducted into the Recording Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1986) and a digital one in the early 1980s. The early cycle had the distinction of being the first ever and the concomitant virtue of wide-eyed discovery; the digital set was good, if a trifle avuncular for such bracing music. By 1963 the quartets were in the Juilliard players’ bones, and stereo technology could capture, as Alfred Frankenstein wrote in his High Fidelity review, “every one of those curious Bartókian pizzicatos which bound off the fingerboard like pistol shots, every needle-shower of ponticello, every straw-fiddle effect of drone basses and tone without vibrato.”

Arkiv’s CD release sounds superb, matching the excellent LP sonics but with less tape hiss, and James Goodfriend’s excellent notes are printed in full in the accompanying booklet. Moreover, the quartets are sensibly accommodated on three discs, unlike a French CD release from 2001 that crammed the six works onto two discs, requiring the Fourth Quartet to be broken between CDs after the first movement. This set is an absolute must for anyone interested in the greatest quartets after Beethoven’s.

At the same time, Arkiv brought out an excellent CD transfer of the Juilliard’s 1967 recordings of the two Ives quartets. The homespun First (1896) is filled with hymn tunes (“Stand up, stand up for Jesus”) and such songs as “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The Second Quartet is made of similar inspiration in less consonant garb, in three movements: Discussions, Arguments, and “The Call of the Mountains,” ending in “Nearer My God to Thee.” In Arguments, the second violin interrupts a vigorous altercation with a saccharine solo marked “Andante Emasculata,” which in turn is violently rejected by the other players in a fortississimo “Allegro con fisto.” Later the four players have at each other “con fuoco (all mad),” and the movement ends with a brief “Andante con scratchy (as tuning up)” and an abrupt “Allegro con fistiswatto (as a K.O),” right out of the ending of The Rite of Spring. Boys will be boys.

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